World faces megafire threat – Australian expert

World faces megafire threat – Australianexpert

19 January 2007

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They burn like fire hurricanes on fronts stretchingsometimes thousands of kilometres and with a ferocity that explodes trees andmakes them impossible to extinguish short of rain or divine intervention.

Australia — Bushfires like those which have raged through Australia’sSoutheast for two months and which struck Europe, Canada and the western UnitedStates in 2003 are a new type of “megafire” never seen until recently,a top Australian fire expert said on Friday.

“They basically burn until there is a substantial break in the weather,or they hit a coastline,” Kevin O’Loughlin, chief executive of Australia’sgovernment-backed Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, said.

“These fires can’t be controlled by any suppression resources that wehave available anywhere in the world.”

Wildfires have struck five of Australia’s six states since November,blackening more than 1.2 million hectares of bushland, killing one and guttingdozens of homes.

Firefighters were being airdropped on Friday into the country’s ruggedsoutheastern alps to try to control a blaze threatening the upmarket ski resortof Thredbo, just 150km south of the capital, Canberra.

An army of 15,000 Australian volunteers was being assisted by firefightersfrom Canada and New Zealand, with more teams from the United States expected toarrive next week.

O’Loughlin said international experience pointed to megafires becoming usualin many parts of the world, driven in part by global warming and by lawsprotecting national parks, which provided a source of fuel to megafire fronts.

Huge fires devastated large parts of Portugal, Spain and France in 2003, andalso struck Canada and the United States as well as Australia, which is theworld’s most fire-prone country.

“Even in the US, which has quite substantial suppression resources –helicopters, the army, fleets of planes – they still cannot control them,”O’Loughlin said.

Megafires are created when separate fires link and create one “super-front”.Some of Australia’s fires this summer have borders stretching thousands ofkilometres, although authorities have been fortunate in that most have been inremote mountain ranges.

The fires are so fierce they create their own weather and winds, sucking inair from all directions.

“Once you get to a certain size the fire takes on a life of its own and,for example in Canberra in 2003, you got fire tornadoes,” O’Loughlin said,referring to blazes which swallowed entire suburbs in Australia’s capital fouryears ago. To tackle megafires amid global warming, O’Loughlin said, governmentsworldwide might have to consider unlocking protected parklands and rejectingenvironmentalist arguments against intentionally burning dry timber litteringthe forest floor.

Climate change was also playing a part, reducing seasonal rains in some areasand drying out forests.

“The forests now form a major fire hazard. In the US they are startingto reintroduce fire to forested areas, but that is a very sensitive topic andyou need to bring people along, especially parts of the conservation movement,”O’Loughlin said.

Experts from Australia and around the world will gather in Canberra onFebruary 27 to consider how to tackle megafires.

“It’s to do with land management, water resources, forestry resources,and it will require political decisions to be made,” O’Loughlin said.

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